THE Philippines and the United States will “jointly operate” the four new locations under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that was agreed upon by the two governments during the visit of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin 3rd this week, a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said on Saturday.
Col. Medel Aguilar said, however, that the establishment or enhancement of these facilities will be funded by the US and will be turned over to the Philippine government after its use.
The AFP statement comes as the US Defense Department announced that the Philippines has agreed to restart joint patrols in the South China Sea to counter China's military rise.
The two countries had suspended maritime patrols in the hotly contested area under the rule of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
During a visit to Manila by Austin, he and Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez “agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea to help address [security] challenges,” the statement said Thursday (Friday in Manila).
Col. Aguilar said EDCA was a “collaborative agreement” between the US and the Philippines that enables both countries to increase joint training opportunities, humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) capability, and rotational activities to strengthen interoperability between its armed forces.
“We look forward to working continuously with our allies to further strengthen our capability to save lives in times of natural disasters and defend the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Galvez said the EDCA sites should not be a cause for concern for anyone since it could also spur economic investments, joint protection and preservation of the country's maritime and natural resource1s.
“At the outset, let me point out that defense capability building is within the sovereign right of every country, and in the pursuit of that right the DND has been and will always remain consistent in its position that all engagements with the US, as well as other foreign partners, must be conducted in accordance with the Philippine Constitution and other national laws,” Galvez said.
He stressed that EDCA was “primarily envisioned to develop our own bases and facilities in line with our overall efforts to enhance our defense posture, especially our preparedness for responding to disasters and emergencies.”
Galvez said in cooperation with the US, EDCA will facilitate the construction of facilities and infrastructure upgrades that will directly contribute to the enhancement of the AFP's capabilities, and serve as storage or housing for assets and materials that will be prepositioned in Agreed Locations subject to prior authorization from the Philippines as specified in the EDCA provisions.
He pointed out that prepositioned equipment that will be stored in the agreed locations will strengthen the Philippine government's capabilities to immediately deliver humanitarian assistance to disaster-affected areas as well as promote more rapid reaction times during disasters, emergencies, or contingencies.
In terms of personnel, Galvez said no less than Austin reiterated during their recent joint press conference that EDCA is not about permanent basing in the Philippines, which is forbidden by the Philippine Constitution, but rather a “collaborative agreement that will allow our allies access to training opportunities with Philippine personnel on a rotational basis for the purpose of enhancing interoperability and mutual capacity building between Philippine and US forces.”
“I must stress that EDCA and its implementation, the AFP Modernization Program, or the PH-US alliance are directed to modernize our capabilities and collaboration to react to emergencies and protect our maritime and environmental interests,” he said.
The EDCA is a supplemental agreement to the previous Visiting Forces Agreement. It was signed by the Philippines and the US on April 28, 2014.
The agreement allows the US to rotate its troops into the Philippines for extended stays.
The agreement also allows US forces and contractors to operate out of “agreed locations,” which are defined as: “facilities and areas that are provided by the Government of the Philippines through the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and that United States forces, United States contractors, and others as mutually agreed.”
The agreement hands over all operational controls of these “agreed locations” to the US, and allows US forces to pre-position and store defense materiel, equipment, and supplies.
The agreement makes clear that this material cannot include nuclear weapons.
The four new locations agreed upon by the two countries were not yet revealed but previous negotiations between the US and the Philippines have identified Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa in Palawan, and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu province as possible sites that will host the US military facilities.
Existing locations of military bases for the American troops under EDCA are Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro, and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan, Cebu.
Repairing fractured ties
The agreements come as the allies seek to repair ties that were fractured under Duterte, who favored China over the US.
The new administration of Ferdinand Marcos has been keen to reverse that.
Beijing's growing assertiveness on Taiwan and its building of bases in the disputed South China Sea have given fresh impetus to Washington and Manila to strengthen their partnership.
Given the Philippines' proximity to Taiwan and its surrounding waters, its cooperation would be key in the event of a conflict with China, which a four-star US Air Force general has warned could happen as early as 2025.
The agreement on joint patrols was made “at the last minute” of Thursday's defense talks between Austin and Galvez, a senior Philippines official told AFP on Friday.
“There is firm agreement that we will discuss guidelines of how to do these joint patrols,” said the official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
“There will have to be follow-up discussions … [about] exactly what we want to do, exactly where we want to do things, how often,” and whether naval or coast guard vessels would participate in the patrols, the official added.
“Of course, the devil is going to be in the details, so technically if we don't agree in the end about how we want to do it, then it's not going to go forward.”
Meanwhile, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro warned that the government's plan to provide American soldiers access to four additional military bases in the Philippines was a plan by the US to test nuclear weapons in Philippine military facilities.
Speaking at the 124th Commemoration of the Philippine-American War in Sta. Mesa, Manila, on Saturday, Castro expressed concern about the potential harms and disadvantages of EDCA.
“Even though there are no formal US bases, we cannot deny that the US Armed Forces are present in our country and have not departed,” Castro said.
“Let us end their entry into our country and let us not be used as personnel in their war. As Filipinos, we must uphold the Constitution and preserve our sovereignty,” she added. FRANCO BARONA, WITH REPORTS FROM AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE AND MOISES CRUZ
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